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Opinion

Op-Ed: I helped spark the Rapinoe-Trump war. Trust me, put your money on the soccer star

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2019-WOMEN-MATCH46-FRA-USA
United States’ forward Megan Rapinoe celebrates scoring her team’s first goal during the Women’s World Cup quarter-final football match between France and United States, on June 28.
(Franick Fife / AFP/Getty Images)

Heading into the holiday weekend, Donald Trump has plenty to fret about, what with the annoying mess at the southern border, his lousy approval ratings and Robert Mueller’s looming testimony before Congress. But here’s another item for his list of worries: The U.S. women’s soccer team could well win the World Cup on Sunday. Let me explain.

Back in January, the American soccer magazine Eight by Eight sent me to interview Megan Rapinoe, the team’s firebrand captain. She was in a typically impish mood.

I was halfway through my first question, about the traditional invitation to visit the White House extended to every victorious U.S. team, when Rapinoe — who is as well known for her boldly unapologetic views on gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and racial justice as for her lavender hairdo and game-winning goals — interrupted. There was no way, she burst out, that she would accept such an overture from this White House.

No big deal, really. Except Rapinoe, being Rapinoe, added a little spice to her response by inserting an expletive before “White House.” And just like that, a culture war erupted between the player and President Trump that shows no signs of abating. Only one thing seems certain: Win or lose, Rapinoe and her teammates won’t be presenting the president with an honorary U.S. jersey as they did to President Obama after winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

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Win or lose, Rapinoe and her teammates won’t be presenting the president with an honorary U.S. jersey as they did to President Obama.

Eight by Eight released video of Rapinoe’s response to my question just before the quarter-finals, and when it went viral, Trump couldn’t resist jumping in with both leaden feet, firing off a barrage of semi-grammatical tweets hectoring the U.S. left winger (that’s Rapinoe’s position on the field) about disrespecting “our Country, the White House or our Flag” while pouting “Megan should WIN first before she TALKS.”

Rapinoe tackled Trump’s Twitter tirade with all the spiky assurance she displays on the field. “I stand by the comments that I made about not wanting to go to the White House, with exception of the expletive,” she said. “My mom would be very upset about that.” She then went out and coolly scored both U.S. goals in their taut 2-1 victory over France, propelling the Americans to a semifinal showdown with another pugnacious rival, England.

That’s when the hostility toward the U.S. team in general and Rapinoe in particular was taken up by a wider chorus.

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One early piler-on was the insufferably smug British TV personality Piers Morgan, a self-proclaimed “good friend” of Trump who got his knickers in a twist after seeing Rapinoe strike the same indelible pose each time she scored: arms outstretched joyfully, palms up, fingers extended to the sky in triumph. “Ms. Rapinoe sure does love herself. Can’t wait to see our Lionesses dent that stupendous ego,” he tweeted. On the day of the U.S.-England match, he doubled down: “Tonight, her cocky, little arms stay down.”

A bit risible, I’d say, that Morgan would expect a display of humility from the gloriously defiant Rapinoe after she just scored perhaps the two most defining goals of her career? If Morgan has a problem with supremely confident athletes, how can he ally himself with a U.S. president who has been known to tag his tweets “#bestpresidentever”?

The social media drone strike on Rapinoe did not go unnoticed by women’s basketball legend Sue Bird, who also happens to be Rapinoe’s girlfriend. “What’s legitimately scary,” Bird posted on the Player’s Tribune, is that “suddenly you’ve got all these MAGA peeps getting hostile in your mentions and you’ve got all these crazy blogs writing terrible things about this person you care so much about.”

I was suspicious of the surprise announcement on Tuesday, just before the U.S. team was to take the field against England, that Rapinoe had been benched. Could this be U.S. soccer, the sport’s governing body, attempting to curry favor with the U.S. president? I was relieved to hear that her absence was due to a hamstring strain and that she’ll be back on Sunday to play in the final.

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute »

In the meantime, I wish the president would go back and read beyond Rapinoe’s initial comment in my article. If he does, he may appreciate, even identify with, Rapinoe’s badass vision of what she calls “the American mentality.” During our conversation she made clear that despite there being half-a-dozen teams potentially capable of dethroning the defending U.S. champions, there was one crucial thing that set the Americans apart.

“The key,” she said, “is how you get up after being knocked down, how you fight for every ball. … It’s about that killer instinct, to want the ball when the game’s on the line, and people aren’t just born that way. You’ve got to work really [expletive] hard at it.”

I suspect the U.S. captain would again apologize to her mother for her seven-letter word. But Rapinoe’s sentiment transcends coarse language just as she has transcended this World Cup.

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David Hirshey has been an editor at Esquire, The New Yorker and HarperCollins Publishers. He lives in Santa Monica.


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